Traverse City Record-Eagle

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October 27, 2007

Crowd tackles judicial issues

Forum focuses on fairness in state Supreme Court

TRAVERSE CITY -- The process of selecting Michigan Supreme Court justices is flawed, and reform is needed to change the way campaigns are financed and cases are decided.

That's the message delivered Thursday as part of a panel discussion, hosted in part by the League of Women Voters, on the problems facing the state's high court. Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson gave those assertions to the standing-room-only crowd, using examples from actual cases and campaign advertisements to support their claims.

In addition, Justice Elizabeth Weaver, of Glen Arbor, stressed the importance of a fair and independent court to protect the rights of the state's citizens.

Weaver frequently has spoken out against the court's Republican majority, of which she is part, criticizing them Thursday for what she termed an "abuse of the power of interpretation."

"That power should be used with the greatest restraint and with common sense," Weaver said, adding that the court needs justices who can tell their friends and supporters they are wrong if the law indicates as much.

But, she said, "It's very difficult to get elected to the Supreme Court if you're like that."

The problem with the election process is that campaigns are becoming expensive -- in the millions of dollars in some cases -- and contributions by special-interest groups to fund televised issue advertisements are not required to be reported, Robinson said.

He cited a study that showed campaign contributors to at least one justice were parties in 86 percent of the cases the court heard in the 1990s, and he questioned whether the justices involved should have removed themselves from hearing those cases.

"How does one evaluate whether there is a conflict of interest here?" Robinson said. "There needs to be some separation."

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